The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Intrepid Citizens Save Timbuktu's Priceless Manuscripts

Once again civilization survives barbarism: Timbuktu’s ancient literary treasures were not destroyed after all. In a classic example of how the uncertainty of war can make bad reporters of us all, local accounts apparently vastly exaggerated the damage done to the city’s legendary library. Not only was the place not burned to the ground—as the city’s mayor claimed—but the manuscripts themselves were removed from the library by Malians last year. The Daily Maverick reports:

Preservationists in Mali told Walt that a large-scale rescue operation was executed early last year and thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmed Baba Institute [the name of the library that housed the manuscripts] to a safe house elsewhere. “Realising that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the centre had been deliberately emptied,” Walt said. . . .

Other reports now suggest just 2,000 manuscripts were kept at the Ahmed Baba Institute while a further 28,000 were transferred safely to Bamako last year. According to these reports, efforts to save the manuscripts began as soon as northern Mali fell to Tuareg rebels last year. So while some manuscripts may have been destroyed, or looted, by fleeing rebels, the bulk of the collection appears to have been saved.

Though of course the loss of even some of the the manuscripts is tragic, we are greatly relieved that the majority of the collection has been saved. We are also inspired by the example of decency and courage displayed by the citizens who saved these treasures. Civilization is a hard won victory, and it must be constantly reclaimed in the face of barbarism. It’s successes like these that give us hope and remind us that no matter how culturally different Malians are from us, we are all involved in the same fight.

Published on January 30, 2013 7:00 pm